Monday, December 22, 2014

"In No Department of Theatrical Writing Is So Little Imagination and Inventiveness Shown As in the Mystery Play"

Back in the 1920s, long before television and Cinemascope movies, going to a stage play was regarded as the supreme dramatic experience. George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was a widely read drama critic of the era who probably spent more time in darkened theaters than bright sunlight but who also had definite ideas of what playwrights should be doing with their medium.
On occasion Nathan commented on the staged mystery play. Here are his tongue-in-cheek recommendations for improving the theater goer's experience, years before William Castle:
. . . the mystery melodrama theatre should have a bizarre and spooky illumination, the ushers should be dressed as ghosts or burglars and should shoot off pistols as they show the patrons to their seats, the lavatory should be entered through a sliding panel, there should be secretly manipulated trap-doors under the seats through which the patrons' hats might periodically be made to disappear from under their chairs and then again to reappear, the box-office attendants should wear black masks, sudden terrifying screams should issue during the entr'-actes from the ladies' room, and Mr. J. Ranken Towse should be mysteriously kidnapped by the house-manager sometime during the first act. — "The Theatre," THE AMERICAN MERCURY (September 1926, HERE).
As for the quality of stage mysteries, Nathan rightly complained of their lack of innovation:
The mystery play is always with us. Three new specimens have been produced since the season opened: "The Ghost Train," by Arnold Ridlley, mentioned in my review of the London season; "The Donovan Affair," by Owen Davis; and "Number 7," [sic] by J. Jefferson Farjeon. All follow familiar tracks; in none of them is there any departure from the old stencils. In no department of theatrical writing is so little imagination and inventiveness shown as in the mystery play. At rare intervals we have a "Sherlock Holmes," a "Seven Keys to Baldpate," a "Bat" or an "Unknown Purple" that works a fresh vein into the venerable materials, but in the general run all that we get is the same laborious and intricate concealment of the identity of a criminal and a last-minute solution that would make even a traffic cop laugh.
It seems strange that the manufacturers of such exhibits do not exercise more ingenuity. The inventions that we find among the fiction writers is lacking among the dramatic. There hasn't been a single mystery play produced in the last ten years that has had one-tenth the ingenuity of Melville Davisson Post's "Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason" and "Man of Last Resort," or the short story called "The Suicide of Karnos" (I forget the author's name), or Austin's excellent murder stories published in McClure's Magazine, or Chesterton's "Father Brown," or the story, printed in the Strand Magazine, built around the smashing of an inscribed goblet by a loud orchestral vibration, or William J. Burns' story dealing with the way in which a criminal, against his will and wholly unconscious of outside machination, is persuaded to leave a small village—or of a score or more such tales.
Instead of hitting off in new directions, the mystery play writers stick complacently to the ancient formulae. The curtain goes up on the discovery of a man found murdered and suspicion is made to fall elaborately and senselessly upon everyone, with the eleventh hour disclosure that the crime was committed by the last person in the world who would conceivably have committed it in actual life.
The curtain rises on a supposed haunted house, the strange goings-on in which terrorize the inhabitants until 10:45, at which hour it is revealed that the occult phenomena have been produced by electric switches hidden behind a secret panel and manipulated by the villain.
The curtain is pulled aloft and, after two hours of mystery monkeyshines, the profoundest idiot among the characters is revealed to be a detective master-mind in disguise.
Thus, year in and year out, it goes. Yet the slightest exertion on the part of the gentlemen who concoct such boob delicatessen might be productive of something less stereotyped. In any book of parlor magic they might find a dozen or more ideas that might be developed into fresh theatrical stuff. (If the theme called "Zeno," produced a couple of years ago, had been handled by a man experienced in playwriting, it would have proved lively and interesting mystery pastime.)
Surely, there are some fetching suggestions in the prestidigitator tomes, as a glance at them will show. In the book compiled for "Science and Invention" there are no less than twenty tricks and illusions that might profitably and divertingly be incorporated into the mystery-play form. There are, also, the astonishing chemical discoveries of James Millar Neil, the Canadian, that offer a wealth of excellent material for such theatrical purposes.
But the playwrights persist in going on with the same old trap-doors, phosphorescent ghosts, busts of Buddha, suits of armor that suddenly move, and cabbaged pearl necklaces. — "The Theatre," THE AMERICAN MERCURY (November 1926, HERE).
- We have already discussed Seven Keys to Baldpate HERE.
- The Unknown Purple was filmed in 1923; go HERE for more.
- The Donovan Affair was made into a film directed by Frank Capra in 1929; see HERE.

Category: Mystery plays criticism

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